Outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Washington, on a crisp day in March, Buddhist monks in maroon robes rang a large ceremonial gong. A line of people wrapped around the block, hoping to pass through security to courtrooms already filled to capacity. They were there to support five silver-haired peace activists being sentenced for convictions of conspiracy, trespassing, and felony damage and destruction of government property on the Navy's Kitsap-Bangor Trident nuclear submarine base.
The activists, members of "Disarm Now Plowshares," were two priests, a nun, and two grandmothers: Bill Bichsel, Stephen Kelly, Anne Montgomery, Susan Crane, and Lynne Greenwald.
They entered the Trident base on November 2, 2009, used bolt-cutters to get through the first fence, and then walked nearly four miles to a nuclear weapons storage area, where they cut through two more fences. There they hung a banner, sprinkled the ground with their own blood and sunflower seeds, and prayed, before they were finally arrested.
Strange as the ritual sounds, it's a hallmark of the Plowshares Movement, founded by brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest. Along with six others, they broke into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania in 1980, damaging nuclear warhead nose cones and pouring blood over documents and files. By 2000, some 71 similar actions had taken place across the world following the Berrigans' model of nonviolence towards people, accountability for actions, and a commitment to peace. Their movement takes its name from a Biblical prophecy of a future of peace, when swords will be transformed into plowshares—tools of peaceful production.
While Plowshares activists the world over identify many different things as "swords," nuclear weapons are widely considered to be the most egregious, capable of the deadliest havoc against humanity.
Each of the eight Trident submarines at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor has 24 nuclear missiles, and each of these carries multiple warheads that can be independently aimed. According to the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolence at Bangor, the 2,364 nuclear warheads at the base make up about 24 percent of the entire U.S. arsenal—the greatest volume of operational nuclear weapons in North America, and one that trumps the national nuclear arsenals of China, France, Israel, India, North Korea, and Pakistan combined.
This weekend is the 66th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which launched the era of nuclear arms proliferation. It will be marked by acts of remembrance and resistance outside of the base at Bangor.
Jesuit Priest Bill Bichsel, now released from prison and back in the local community that treasures him as “Father Bix,” spoke to YES! about a what it means to commit to a life of activism, and the inspiring life of his friend and colleague, Sister Jackie Hudson, who died this week.
Valerie Schloredt: You've been involved in active resistance to nuclear weapons since 1974. How many times have you been arrested now?
Fr. Bill Bichsel: Well, I’m not sure. My first arrest at Bangor was in ’76. Sometimes we were arrested and nothing was done. Sometimes we were given time. The first time I served any time was 1979 for some of our actions at the base.
Valerie Schloredt: Some people would ask why it’s important to do these kinds of actions and risk arrest over such a long period of time.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: I think our nuclear warhead superiority is the reason we can push around other nations, other people, in the world. Nuclear weapons create hopelessness and fear. And they don’t deter anything. More and more nations, in order to feel safe, take up nuclear weapons, and so there’s an escalation in which fear mounts—and when you fear, you arm yourself. So the possibility of use always grows, each year, each month.
Valerie Schloredt: Many who would prefer a nuclear-free world also concede that, now that so many countries have them, nuclear weapons are required to keep other countries in check. What's wrong with having them as a deterrent?
Fr. Bill Bichsel: It’s the taproot of violence in the United States. The fact that we give assent to nuclear weapons as a deterrent means that we would be willing to see the deaths of millions of people around the earth if we felt endangered or if we felt we had just cause to fire off a nuclear weapon ... rather than turning to negotiation, talking, nonviolence, pledging ourselves to no first use, taking our weapons off hair-trigger alert, and living up to the non-proliferation treaty.
Valerie Schloredt: At the sentencing in Tacoma, you not only had great support from a church-based peace activist community, but also seemed to be getting the message across to the broader local community. The judge appeared to take the community’s concern on board. Did you think he understood that the community supporting the Disarm Now Plowshares had a strong moral argument that deserved to be heard?
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Fr. Bill Bichsel: The sentences that he handed down indicated that he did listen. I think he was trying in some way or another to square his own thoughts—these are five people involved in community service, which he praised, and we appreciated his acknowledgement. But federal judges are pretty well governed by precedent. There’s no federal judge yet that has allowed us to use the International Law or Necessity Defense: If you are going down the street and see a house on fire, and you see somebody trapped on the second floor, you don’t ask if you can go in—you just break the door down to get the people out. With our actions at Bangor submarine base, there’s that urgency: rescuing someone from imminent danger.
Valerie Schloredt: On November 2, you and the other defendants got into an inner enclosure of the Trident base, right next to the nuclear warheads. It's surprising that you were able to get that far.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: We were surprised as well. We got through the first fence, and then we were on the base for three and a half hours before we started cutting through the fences that guard where the nuclear weapons were. We never expected to get that far. We just feel it was the spirit or the grace of God or something that was working beyond us.
It was an area where lethal force was authorized. We expected helicopters, or dogs, or something. But we were able to cut through the first fence, and then there was a 15-foot-wide roadway that ran between the two fences, and the next fence had a lot of sensors.
That’s when the Marines came. After we got through that second fence, into where the nuclear weapons are stored, that’s when we were arrested. They kept us there for a number of hours, face down. They had sacks over our heads. They didn’t want us to see what we had already seen. So it was something like Guantanamo.
Valerie Schloredt: I don’t think everyone understands that people who do this kind of civil disobedience often come up against serious force. It shows how much you've been willing to risk.
How long were you in prison?
Fr. Bill Bichsel: I got a three-month sentence, and a six-month house arrest and one year of supervised release. I did part of my sentence at SeaTac and then I was shifted by air to Tennessee to stand trial in May for an action I’d done there in July of 2010 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
They kept me in the Knoxville County Jail while I continued to serve out my federal time.
Valerie Schloredt: I understand that conditions were not very good there.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: In regular jail time, you experience a lot of lockdown. It’s not very conducive to a prisoner’s health.
Valerie Schloredt: The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action has a lot planned this weekend to honor the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My condolences on the loss, yesterday, of one of your longtime organizers and friends, Sister Jackie Hudson.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: She’s been the heart and soul of resistance up there at the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolence for many a year now. It is a great loss. She represents a continuing spirit of resistance. She was a woman of joy and song and humor. Just a wonderful human being. You might say that she really did give her life to that.
Valerie Schloredt: I understand that she was in prison herself recently, and in poor health.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: Oh yeah, she’s the one who really went through the poor health. We did the same action together at Oak Ridge. She was a Dominican, and there were a couple other Dominican nuns with her there as well.
She had fallen in prison and she broke some ribs. Finally, her health was so bad that they had to release her to a hospital in Knoxville. They found out that she had kidney failure as well as pneumonia, and they did not catch the fact that underlying that she had multiple myeloma [diagnosed after her release].
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Valerie Schloredt: I think most Americans, if they really understood what prison sentences are like, would understand that these acts of disobedience are not undertaken lightly.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: Right. I’d done time before down in LongPoke Federal Prison, and a year and a half down at the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, and other times in county jails.
Valerie Schloredt: And yet you still did the action, knowing what prison was like. Why?
Fr. Bill Bichsel: It’s a matter of faith with us. We prayed a lot before we did the action up at Bangor. We discerned and prayed and were together for almost a year before we actually whittled down who would be the five, and where would we go, and what would be the action.
Valerie Schloredt: For a lot of people, the deaths in Nagasaki and Hiroshima that will be commemorated throughout the world this weekend are ancient history. Yet you and your colleagues are taking action to keep that reality from happening again.
Fr. Bill Bichsel: Yes, and to keep that reality alive: It did happen, and it can happen again.
One of the tragedies of the United States is that we’ve never acknowledged the tremendous suffering we’ve caused—not only with the [hundreds of thousands] of people killed in the bombings and in the following months, but also the radiation sickness that has continued on down the generations.
We’ve never acknowledged the wrong that we’ve done, nor have we made any sort of attempt of apologizing or taken any sort of responsibility in saying we will not let this happen again. Japan has forgiven us, but we have not acknowledged the terrible wrong that we’ve done to them.
Valerie Schloredt: You've been working toward this for 35 years, and yet here we are in a country of ramped-up militarism and the continued production of nuclear weaponry. Do you ever feel your actions are ineffective? What is resistance really about?
Fr. Bill Bichsel: In the words of Dorothy Day, it’s not so much a worry about being effective as being faithful to our vision of a world without nuclear weapons. My own personal faith enters into that.
It is my very strong belief that life is stronger than death, that instead of funding these weapons of destruction, we can create something that is useful for human existence.
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